Oliver Cook has recently graduated from Newcastle University after studying an MA in Public Relations. In this interview, Oliver tells us all about his studies and how he is now looking forward to a successful career in PR.
Tell us a bit about yourself Oliver?
What was your undergraduate degree?
I studied History and Philosophy at the University of Sheffield. A great city and would highly advise people to visit it, especially if they know people who live there.
Why did you choose to do a Masters?
I enjoyed my time at Sheffield and would love to do it all again, however, I was rather disappointed to graduate with a 2:2, especially because nearly everyone I knew got a 2:1.
After Graduating, I had no idea what I wanted to do. After three months’ voluntary work in Sri Lanka with Project Sri Lanka, I immediately started working to save some money and decide what I wanted to do. I ended up at Starbucks and decided to take a year out to save for a trip around the U.S.
My American trip was one of the best things I have ever done, however after I had done it, I realised I needed to think about my career. Having a 2:2 degree is no terrible thing, and many go onto great success with one. However, I personally felt a good Masters in addition to my degree would catch the eye of an employer. However, the next step was to save up money to pay for a Masters and to actually decide what to study!
Why Public Relations?
I loved History and Philosophy, however I didn’t think doing a Masters in either subject would benefit me. I wanted to do something that would help me develop new skills and learn something new, rather than learning a period of history that I had already done in more detail.
I looked into Journalism; I love football and follow it regularly on many different media platforms, so debated whether to become a football reporter or writer. However, journalism is incredibly competitive now, with not a lot of opportunities available, so I looked elsewhere.
I then came across PR. I didn’t know much about it, but I knew that it was about the importance of reputation and how an organisation or person is perceived. Personally, I’m always aware of how I’m perceived by others, and hate being in people’s ‘bad books’. Additionally, working for a global brand like Starbucks, I was used to week in week out having to provide excellent customer service as to not negatively effect my store or the company’s reputation. Along with the writing and analytical skills I had gained from by degree, I felt PR looked a promising route to take.
Why did you choose to study at Newcastle study?
Firstly, through word of mouth. I had heard there was a good PR course there. I did some research, looked at the course myself and it looked very interesting. Not only was it PR that I would be studying, but also Media, which also looked interesting and appealing. All in all, I got the impression that I would learn a lot from the course, both knowledge and skills.
Another key factor for choosing Newcastle was location. I live and work in Darlington and couldn’t afford to pay for a Masters AND move away from home. Darlington is only a half an hour train commute to Newcastle, so I didn’t have to travel far to get to uni… It just meant I couldn’t roll out of bed ten minutes before a lecture!
What did you enjoy most about studying for the Masters?
I would be lying if I said I had not been anxious before starting it. Part of me was worried about discovering PR wasn’t what I wanted to do, or that I wouldn’t like the course. Especially as I was paying for it all out of my own (and family’s) pocket. However, thankfully this was not the case; I thoroughly enjoyed the course. I learned so much and I genuinely felt enlightened by the end of it. I perceived what I saw in the media completely differently, and learned just how important reputation was to an organisation.
I enjoyed learning about the theory of PR; the history of it and the key components of it. I enjoyed the media studies module learning how to analyse media; there was so much I was unaware of. I also had the option to take a degree module in advertising and consumption which was another highlight; I didn’t appreciate the amount of thought that goes in to making adverts.
The practical element was good too; I felt I was genuinely developing new skills by learning how to write a press release, how to plan a PR campaign, or how to react to a PR crisis. A special shout out also must go out to Laurel and Jonathan who taught the course. Laurel doesn’t talk at you in a lecture, she continually asks you questions, often regarding hypothetical situations to check our understanding of what we were learning and apply it. Jonathan was great to have as a seminar tutor too for the same reasons; always trying to encourage discussion and ensure we were understanding theory to be able to apply it to hypothetical situations.
Regarding doing a Masters itself, I found the seminars intellectually stimulating, they never felt like a waste of time. If anything, I wish they had been longer than they were! I enjoyed taking part in discussion and debate with lecturers who knew what they were talking about and could explain things clearly in an engaging way.
What did you find most challenging?
When writing essays, it was always a pain trying to ensure a good essay was under the word count. It meant ensuring that I was concise and selective with what I was writing. However, this was an important thing to practice as it is important to make sure what you write is concise when writing press releases, and especially tweets.
How did you manage the balance between work and studying?
I worked part-time at Starbucks throughout my whole year of study at Newcastle. I went down from 30 hours to 16. This meant balancing three days of work a week with travelling to Newcastle for lectures and seminars, as well as reading, researching and writing essays.
It meant often having to do a morning shift before an afternoon at Uni, or sometimes rushing from Uni to get back to work to do an afternoon shift. I often also had to work nearly every weekend, so days off to do academic work or socialise were a rarity.
This was probably the hardest part of my Masters, especially when doing my dissertation as ideally those extra days off would have made researching and writing less stressful. However I needed income and I wanted to continue my relationship with Starbucks, in case I had an opportunity to apply for a PR role with them. It also oddly provided me a distraction from University as sometimes you could think too much about academic work.
Practically, doing the course helped me apply PR and marketing skill running my store’s social media accounts.
What advice would you give to our current Masters students?
Plan your time well before an assignment. I felt I was quite good at this. I always ensured I had a week to do one, including research, looking for and choosing appropriate quotes, and writing it.
Regarding the actual dissertation, I would advise knowing what you want to be your topic for it, as the research is the most time consuming. However, I appreciate that new topics are constantly appearing out of nowhere. When I started choosing a topic, Brexit had just happened, and I was tempted to change my mind and choose that as my topic. However, try your best to have an idea, and then try to contact potential interviews as soon as possible.
I would also ensure you keep up to date with current affairs. Laurel and Jonathan would give us weekly pop quiz tests to check how are we all were of that week’s news events. I always knew most of the answers. My advice to easily keep up to date would be to follow news sources such as The Guardian, BBC News, Buzzfeed etc. on Facebook. You’re a lot more likely to see an article when scrolling through social media in your spare time as I’m aware it can be a bit overwhelming reading through a whole newspaper or news website. Additionally, the articles on social media will often be news stories being talked about the most, with the ability to see people’s comments; this is incredibly useful when analysing public opinion and how something or someone is perceived.
How did you land your position with Northstar Ventures?
After an intense summer completing and handing in my dissertation, I took a month to just relax and work part-time at Starbucks whilst going on a few trips away to socialise a bit. Some people job searched straight away, but for me personally I needed the break before looking for jobs.
Northstar Ventures came about after seeing a paid internship on the Newcastle University Careers Service site. Northstar is a venture capital firm which invests in innovative, high growth businesses and social enterprises across the North East. It provides entrepreneurs with the support they need to fulfil their ambitions and to achieve social impact through Northstar’s investments.
I knew of the company as Laura Richards worked there, who was a previous star student of the Media & PR course that I had just done, and had done a few informative talks for the PR students. The role was to be a PR and Marketing assistant working with her at the company. It was a fantastic opportunity to work and learn from an up and coming PR practitioner at a firm like Northstar (Laura has recently been awarded Outstanding Young Communicator at this year’s CIPR North East PRide Awards!).
I’m incredibly grateful that I impressed in the interview and have been given this opportunity to do a 10 week part-time paid internship at Northstar. I have already learned so much from Laura, and Northstar, and have got an idea of what working in PR and marketing in the real world feels like. It has been such a great experience.
What does your day involve?
Typically, my day involves first by checking emails, checking news for any coverage of Northstar or their portfolio companies. I am responsible for social media content and sometimes share relevant news, informing followers of local events, especially if events Northstar are involved in or linked with. If I do find coverage of Northstar or our portfolio companies, I will make sure it is tweeted about.
Other things I do is write press release or blog drafts drafts, which then may be tweaked when needed. However, Laura is very good at giving me useful feedback on what I write and I always take it on board. I already feel like I am developing my skills and improving in my role. I am then also tasked with sending press releases out, updating contacts and also to update the website when needed.
What aspects of your MA have proved most useful in your role?
The clearest example of using skills learned from my MA would be learning how to write press releases. In addition, it is not necessarily direct skills that I am applying to my role, but understanding why I’m doing what I’m doing and the importance it has.
How do you see your career progressing?
Now I officially have a Masters to put on my CV, in addition to great experience gained at Northstar Ventures, I feel this will be highly advantageous when applying for jobs. I love the idea or being in PR, marketing and advertising. I am trying to look into working at head office at Starbucks in a PR/marketing role. Due to the skills and knowledge I have gained and my experience working as a Barista, working face to face daily with their stakeholders, I feel I would have a lot to offer. However, I am perfectly willing to look elsewhere, whether that is in the North East, London, or even abroad (New York would be amazing, wouldn’t it?).
What is the best advice you can give for anyone considering a Masters degree?
Make sure it is something you are interested in. In my situation, I chose it to develop skills in a career I was interested in. Has it been worth it? Well right now I can only say that I have learned a lot. I’ll let you know in five years to see where it has taken me and confirm why someone should do a Masters.
If anyone would like advice regarding their masters or PR, or to follow how my career after university goes, feel free to follow or/and contact me on Twitter (@OGMCookie) or email firstname.lastname@example.org.